Hopeful Harvest Foods is a social enterprise that is growing the local food economy

Forgotten Harvest was established in 1990 as a way to fight hunger and waste. Last year the organization rescued 48.8 million pounds of surplus fresh perishable food last year from 800 locations including grocery stores, restaurants, caterers, farmers, and other Health Department-approved sources. The food is then delivered free of charge to 280 emergency food providers in metro Detroit.
 
Chris Nemeth joined the team at Forgotten Harvest a year ago to launch a new social enterprise program called Hopeful Harvest Foods, a for-profit subsidiary of Forgotten Harvest designed to help further the organization's mission in new ways. He is the President of Hopeful Harvest Foods as well as the Senior Director of Social Enterprise for Forgotten Harvest.
 
Hopeful Harvest has multiple areas of social enterprise focus to help local small businesses, become part of a larger workforce development initiative, and have another avenue to drive revenue to support the mission of Forgotten Harvest. They achieve this through three primary efforts, all of which "have a foundation to provide revenue, create jobs, and help small businesses in the metro Detroit community."
 
First, Hopeful Harvest provides co-packing, manufacturing, and processing services and facilities to small food entrepreneurs throughout metro Detroit, the profits from which all go back to support Forgotten Harvest.
 
The food business has become big business in Michigan in recent years. A perfect storm of changing laws and a shifting economy led to a surge of independent food entrepreneurs.
 
When the State of Michigan loosened its cottage industry food laws in 2010 to allow many such businesses to sell commercially, while at the same time, many people who lost or were bought out of their jobs during the recession decided to go into business for themselves rather than continuing to rely on the volatile corporate world. Now metro Detroit's local food economy is booming, so much that many are growing faster than they know how. 
 
Hopeful Harvest Foods just completed the buildout of a 3,000-square-foot commercial kitchen and production area in their Oak Park headquarters (which they share with Forgotten Harvest). The facility has another 15,000 square feet of refrigerator and freezer space, and another 10,000 square feet of warehouse storage.
 
Hopeful Harvest acts as a full-service food hub for small food business entrepreneurs. "These are the folks making the move out of the cottage industry and into manufacturing," Nemeth explains. "We help them if they just want the space, or if they want us to do it for them."
 
He says that when many of these small food businesses try to grow, they find that scalability is an issue. "These are incredible people who work so hard and all of a sudden the opportunity is there and someone says, 'I need 100 cases of your product but I need it next week,' and they don't have the scalability."
 
That's where Hopeful Harvest can help them, by providing the commercial production space or even the manufacturing and labor. "Whatever they need that allows them to go out and market their business [we provide]," says Nemeth. "They can't do that if they're in the kitchen 12 hours a day."
 
As a for-profit business, Hopeful Harvest employs trained and paid employees, so food producers do not have to be concerned that their products are being manufactured by unpaid volunteers.
 
Hopeful Harvest now has 25 clients that have come in as referrals from valuable community partners such as FoodLab Detroit, Eastern Market, Michigan State University, and Garden Fresh Gourmet in Ferndale. "We like to work [a little] grassroots. It's kind of a mutual admiration society [between all of these food business entities]," Nemeth says. "Word travels pretty fast. Metro Detroit is a very big small town." 
 
They have already seen some tremendous success stories. The McClary Bros. hand-crafted drinking vinegars are now in 14 states with three distributors (also known as "shrubs," these are very popular with the craft cocktail crowd). Slow Jams is the exclusive provider of jams for Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford. "A lot of people go to places here and don't realize what they're eating and drinking comes from these local guys who are growing like crazy." 
 
Additionally, Hopeful Harvest is partnering with Detroit's Build entrepreneurship training program to conduct entrepreneurship classes in the Oak Park facility, to provide further training and service to small food business entrepreneurs.
 
Hopeful Harvest's second primary directive is in developing a line of Forgotten Harvest-branded and co-branded food products that will start appearing on store shelves later this spring. They are currently developing about 30 different product lines that will include salad dressings, hot sauces, coffee, trail mix, candy, chocolate bars, jams, and jellies, all made in partnership with their small food business clients as well as community partners like Garden Fresh. "The co-branded products made with some of these small food entrepreneurs creates an opportunity for them to get in front of [places like] Kroger," Nemeth says.
 
Kroger stores and Busch's markets have already committed to carrying these products, and that list will continue to grow. This is another revenue stream that will in turn support Forgotten Harvest.
 
The third rung of Hopeful Harvest's social enterprise efforts is a partnership with Michigan State University and Southwest Economic Solutions to develop a 12-week workforce development program focused on the food industry, during which time participants will learn about food processing, distribution, logistics, and basic farming on the organization's 110-acre farm in Fenton, as well as enhance their reading and math skills. "The goal is to make sure everyone has a job when they graduate," Nemeth says. This program will focus on veterans, returning citizens, and others who have had difficulty seeking employment for a variety of reasons, and will launch this summer.
 
"Everything with our social enterprise is to help continue [the Forgotten Harvest mission]: to create jobs and help people and small businesses in the area. We do everything we can to improve the lot of people struggling."